Jungle Book The Musical’s careful approach to storytelling underlines the importance of recognising the realities of refugee children in Penang.
By Deric Ee
We share stories to help people understand our identity, which itself is continuously shaped by the stories we tell about ourselves. In the case of University Sains Malaysia’s (USM) latest musical production, Rohingya children from the Peace Learning Centre are handed an opportunity to perform a popular tale with a cultural twist.
Spearheading the project is Dr. Pravina Manoharan, a lecturer from the School of The Arts who cast these children in an adaptation of The Jungle Book. Her mission is to help these young performers identify as children, and remind the public that beneath the labels of class, race and religion, everyone deserves a platform to share their stories.
But lending minorities a voice on the stage is a thorny subject, especially when it comes to refugees. In 2016, a critically acclaimed interactive theatre performance witnessed a provocative collaboration with refugee children. While praise heaped upon Terryandthecuz’s Sk!n for its experience design, its choice to cast teenage refugees as victims of human trafficking attracted allegations of exploitation as well as public concern for some of its young performers.
So when Dr. Pravina applied for a short term grant for Jungle Book The Musical, she tread with extra care. The ethical considerations which pre-empted her work were comprehensive; it took a whole year before the university greenlit the project.
“One of our initial ideas was to tell the refugees’ story through these children,” recalls Dr. Pravina. “Along the way, we realized it was unfair of us to want to tell their story through them, especially when they could be trying to forget it.”
“One of the girls actually speak about travelling in a boat for 14 days with no water, and when she narrates the story, she remembers it.”
The kind of stories these children tell and the process she puts them through will have an impact, however big or small, on their identity. According to Dr. Pravina, significant time was spent justifying the project to USM’s ethics committee who were concerned about the psychology of her young participants.
“The grant looked at how children, particularly refugee children, can express their identity,” explained Dr. Pravina. “I’m not talking about religious, ethnic or national identity. I’m talking about one’s identity as a child, an identity often robbed off refugee children.”
“There’s an immediate need for many of these kids to become the older sibling, start working or leave their education. Hence, the whole point of this project was to give these children a platform to be themselves – to be children.”
Along the way, the adaptation pays tribute to Rohingya culture with music and visual references. Letting the children make creative choices was one way the project helped them see the relevance of music, drama, and theatre in the preservation of their culture. The USM team includes director Izzard Padzil, artistic director Dr Mumtaz Begum, assistant director and choreographer Nur Hilyati Ramli, visual director Dr Kamal Sabran, set designer Shahidan Mohamad, music director Associate Prof. Razif Mohd., and costume designer Safia Najwa Suhaimi.
Enrolled at the Peace Learning Centre in Minden Heights, Gelugor, these children were given the opportunity to pursue roles such as performer, musician, and songwriter for the production. They rehearse alongside young adults from USM’s School of The Arts under the tutelage of Drama & Theatre lecturer Nur Hilyati Ramli.
Careful not to stir emotions or trigger upsetting experiences, Dr. Pravina brought in a child psychologist to advise the production team on the rehearsal process. Each session was also monitored by a teacher from the Penang Peace Learning Centre to spot signs of anxiety or other negative feelings.
But the kids are alright. One of two kids leading the cast is 14-year-old Ramadan, who displays remarkable ability to learn choreography and perform cartwheels during rehearsals. Children like Ramadan receive basic education from the Peace Learning Centre which includes Bahasa Malaysia, Science and Mathematics lessons. The centre aims to empower children-in-need to forge a living in Malaysia. Dr. Pravina’s involvement with the centre came about when she offered to introduce drama, theatre, and music as a medium to teach English to students.
Close to 50 children from the Peace Learning Centre joined the programme initially, though less than half remain today. Muhd Zul Fadhly, a teacher from the centre who observes rehearsals at USM, notes that admissions have plummeted in recent months.
Most of the kids disappear from the centre after the Hari Raya holidays due to pressure from their families. Parents prefer placing their children in tahfiz schools established by one of their own. Muhd Zul Fadhly believes that they want Islam, a prominent part of Rohingya identity, to feature in their children’s life as a way to preserve cultural identity. The Peace Learning Centre is strictly non-religious when it comes to lessons.
“We provide an academic education to help them have ambition and survive in the outside world,” states Muhd Zul Fadhly. “Kids who enrol in our programmes meet people beyond their own communities and they become confident in speaking to others. We are helping them build character.”
Meanwhile, children who attend these tahfiz schools receive Islamic religious education but not much is known about their teachings. These schools are largely unregulated by the government, nor are they aligned with the national syllabus.
Dr. Pravina asserts that Rohingya children are no different from their Malaysian peers and should not be treated any differently. She said that the learning centre was very clear about this point. “They told us not to overprotect the children — you come to school, you wear your uniform, you sit in class, and you do your homework.”
“We always have to remember that they’re first and foremost children,” Dr. Pravina reminds. “We don’t label them as ‘refugees’ because they notice and dislike it when you give them special treatment. It’s not a privilege to them; they recognise it as discrimination.”
What Dr. Pravina’s team is going through with these kids is a humbling reminder of the wonders and complexities of storytelling. While there are plenty of ways to tell a story, it matters to be mindful of the stories we tell and respectful of the sources of these stories. And in the case of Jungle Book The Musical, sometimes the most helpful thing is to simply cultivate an environment for voices to flourish.
“Giving someone a voice… it’s such an oxymoron, isn’t it?” Dr. Pravina exclaims. “Just by saying that you’ve taken the power away from them. All the children have their voices. They just needed a platform to express it. We are simply providing that platform.”
Jungle Book The Musical runs from 5 – 7 September 2019 at Dewan Budaya Auditorium, Universiti Sains Malaysia, Penang.
For details regarding ticket sales and sponsorships, please contact Dr. Pravina at +6016-377 3308.
Deric Ee is a writer and producer with experience in theatre production, arts writing, and placemaking, which he hopes to channel towards community-driven projects.